W. SCHUMAN: The Mighty Casey. A Question of Taste

by Walter Simmons



SCHUMAN: The Mighty Casey. A Question of Taste. Gerard Schwarz conducting soloists and orchestra of the Juilliard Opera Center. DELOS DE-1030 [DDD}; two discs: 75:32; 54:11. Produced by Joseph W. Polisi.

The notion of a “baseball opera” may conjure a vision of overweight and/or effeminate singers — mostly European-dressed in baseball garb, solemnly declaiming incongruously atonal vocal lines. However, such an image is far removed from the delightfully effective high-quality entertainment created in 1953 by William Schuman, in collaboration with librettist Jeremy Gury. The two expanded Ernest Thayer’s humorous poem, originally published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, into a 75-minute opera, with additional characters, a romantic dimension and an elaborate contextual frame that permits shifts of chronological perspective. The element of metaphysical allegory, presented in a tone of mock portentousness, has made Thayer’s poem an immortal part of American popular culture since it first appeared. This aspect, with its tongue-in-cheek heroism, suspense, and tragedy, is retained and developed in Schuman and Gury’s expansion. Indeed, the choral finale displays a truly tragic eloquence reminiscent of some of the composer’s finest moments.

Schuman, whose music reveals a character that is probably more deeply “American” than that of any other American composer who does not drawn upon vernacular idioms, here reveals an appealing “popular” side that may surprise listeners more accustomed to his hard, angular, “serious” mode. Yet at the same time, Casey is clearly recognizable as a work of Schuman, through virile, aggressive, and nervously syncopated treatment of rhythm, rooted in American speech patterns and totally appropriate to the subject matter. There are a couple of pretty melodies — “Kiss Me Not Goodbye,” in particular, is a real beauty. For the rest of it, catchy tunes, exciting rhythms, consonant harmony, and a robust, vigorous flow of energy keep the music direct and accessible, despite some chromaticism and free atonality. Its structure is thoroughly integrated by motivic interrelationships, yet it owes little to the tone or style of European opera, resembling more the American musical theatre at its best, as in West Side Story.

For some reason, however, the opera has never generated that much interest. Nearly twenty-five years after its completion Schuman created a “concert version,” reducing the number of characters and staging requirements and tightening the musical structure somewhat. Not only has Casey at the Bat (as this cantata version is called caught on much more quickly, but it has also stimulated productions of the original operatic version, among them the December, 1990, mounting at the Juilliard School, from which this recent release is taken. On recording, this production is generally fine in both technical execution and overall shape and tempo, although occasional imprecision of ensemble and stage noise betray the fact that it is an actual performance. Although it has been slow to catch on, I would not be surprised if Casey proves to be one of Schuman’s most enduring compositions, as it becomes more widely known.

I’m afraid I can’t say the same for A Question of Taste, the one-act opera Schuman completed in 1989, together with librettist J. D. McClatchy. Modifying and expanding Roald Dahl’s popular short story, “Taste,” McClatchy set the opera in an elegant New York brownstone in 1910 (the year of Schuman’s birth), enriched and humanized the characters, and imbued the tale with a moral dimension, fashioning the libretto in rhymed verse.

The story revolves around a nouveau-riche businessman with a taste for wine, his eligible daughter, and a sophisticated wine connoisseur, who attempts to exploit their shared enthusiasm to win the hand of the daughter. His means is a wine-tasting wager, which he attempts to manipulate through deception, until his chicanery is revealed by the housekeeper.

The libretto is promising enough, but Schuman’s music isn’t quite what’s needed. The overall. tone is slick, elegant, and urbane — the sort of thing for which Gian Carlo Menotti has always had a flair. As a sort of ritornello, Schuman provides a rather infectious waltz-like orchestral backdrop with syncopations unmistakably characteristic of the composer. But the vocal writing consists of wooden and inanimate declamation — almost amateurish in its obvious intervallic expansions and contractions to reflect rises and falls in emotional expression.

As with Casey, the performances are more than adequate, as is the sound quality.